One is the loneliest number

I was reading Pope Benedict XVI’s recent speech to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps when I came across this quote:

Sadly, in certain countries, mainly in the West, one increasingly encounters in political and cultural circles, as well in the media, scarce respect and at times hostility, if not scorn, directed towards religion and towards Christianity in particular.

Well, the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” panel says the Pope is all wet. Sort of. On Faith editors Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn posed the following question to the panelists:

Media biased against Christians?

Fox News analyst Brit Hume said “widespread media bias against Christianity” was to blame for criticism of his suggestion that Tiger Woods should embrace Christianity to find redemption. “Instead of urging that Tiger Woods turn to Christianity, if I had said what he needed to do was to strengthen his Buddhist commitment or turn to Hinduism, I don’t think anybody would have said a word,” Hume told Christianity Today. “It’s Christ and Christianity that get people stirred up.”

Sarah Palin and other conservative Christians have made similar claims. Is there widespread media bias against Christianity? Against evangelicals such as Hume and Palin? Against public figures who speak openly and directly about their faith? Against people who believe as you do?

And a quick look at the panelist answers is interesting. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield says bias against Christianity is real, but also understandable. Secular Coalition for America President Herb Silverman says the only bias on display against Brit Hume was against pomposity. Gustav Niebuhr wonders what’s the big deal since Jesus said Christians would be persecuted for their beliefs. C. Welton Gaddy says the notion is silly. Atheist apologist Daniel Dennett says it’s about time that the religious were under more intense scrutiny by the media. Professor of Islamic Studies John Esposito says religious bias begins at Fox News. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite says that Palin and Hume are merely reaping what they sowed. Rabbi Jack Moline says that Hume had no integrity. Comparative religions professor Matthew N. Schmalz says it’s Hume who is biased against pluralism. And author and reporter Susan Jacoby says the idea is ludicrous (and that Michael Gerson’s piece in the Post really angered her).

Only one of the panelists, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Muow, agrees that the media is biased against Christians.

So for those keeping score at home, that’s 10 Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” panelists saying that the Pope and Brit Hume are crazypants or get what they deserve and one panelist saying he thinks that they have a point.

Maybe this was just a particularly clever experiment from the minds of Meacham and Quinn to prove the point?

To be sure, I actually enjoyed many of the answers from the panelists, but I’m just kind of wondering if this is what the folks at the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” site think is a representative look at American religious views.

Ross Douthat addressed the point in his most recent column gave his take on the matter in his most recent New York Times column:

Liberal democracy offers religious believers a bargain. Accept, as a price of citizenship, that you may never impose your convictions on your neighbor, or use state power to compel belief. In return, you will be free to practice your own faith as you see fit — and free, as well, to compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas.

That’s the theory. In practice, the admirable principle that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one’s own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of church, synagogue or home.

A week ago, Brit Hume broke all three rules at once.

Read the whole thing for his interesting take on the situation. It may surprise you.

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  • Dave

    In our free society we have the right to complain in public if we feel our religious upbringing was toxic. Because Christianity is by far the largest religion in the USA, most of the complaints will be against Christianity. That’s not a societal bias, it’s statistics.

    The interesting question is, do people with life-long resentment of their religious upbringing preferentially gravitate toward journalism? I guess the question behind that question is, what draws a person to journalism in general?

  • Chris Bolinger

    How did Richard Muow get on that panel?

  • Jerry

    I think it’s important to separate Fox and Hume as one issue and Christianity as another in the interest of clarity. One of the underlying issues is the extreme polarity we see in many areas today from religion to politics. There are many stories to this effect where just about every group feels under attack from the evil people on the other side and feels that the media is biased whether it is or not.

    To issue of Christianity and society, I found this youth column in my paper today and I think it’s a worthy addition to your “pantheon” of stories. I was particularly struck by the open-minded honesty of the following:

    WHAT FIRST COMES to mind when you think of Christians? They’re basically good people, but maybe a little confused, right?

    That’s one of the kinder descriptions I’ve heard. The mental image is often unflattering, and public opinion rarely seems sympathetic. They’re killjoys, zealots, narrow-minded bigots. Whether presented as laughable stock characters or intolerant “fundies,” Christians today carry some unappealing stigmas.

    As I mature in my faith, I have become increasingly aware of how society will perceive me and my religion. I know the stereotypes aren’t completely foundationless. There are killjoys, there are zealots, there are bigots — but Christianity does not demand these attitudes any more than it condones them. The actions of a few who claim the Christian faith have managed to alienate countless numbers of people, a fact that distresses me and has encouraged me to take action.

    I ask others to remain open-minded, to see my faith for what it is and not just the manner in which it is lived out by flawed people like myself. I’m certainly not the perfect witness for my faith, but that does not diminish my desire to share it with all who will listen.

  • Stoo

    Agreed with Jerry on separating the questions. I’ve wondered many of us, myself included, over-reacted on the Hume thing (it’s ultimately just really weird to me to have a TV political analyst go prosletysing, but nothing a free society shouldn’t permit).

    But wider media bias? How much is bias and how much is simply greater willingness to questioncriticise religion? Is christianity coming under attack or losing a position of privilege?

    That said, that 1 in 11 is indeed surprising and not what I’d expect from an american paper.

    A final thought

    the more illiberal idea nthat obody should ever … champion one’s own faith as an alternative

    Probably stemming from the view that ultimately there’s no way to tell which religion is the Right one. So arguing for one over the other – or suggesting that someone of a given faith changes – comes across as obnoxious. Some of us who are secular but not hardcore atheist would say, why not just let people get on with whatever works for them, as long as they’re not treading on anyone else’s toes?

  • Kevin J Jones

    Good find.

    I suspect part of the bias is towards novelty. Just as you find far more exotic animals in a zoo, you find more unrepresentative opinions in university departments or on pundit panels.

    It’s also the case that religious leaders aren’t savvy or interested enough to network with media producers and get their own allies into the pundit rolodex.

    Finally, the non-discrimination orthodoxy required by law in businesses is a structural advantage for universalist or indifferentist adherents. Hume made a “discriminatory” statement, and people now have subtle legal pressure to condemn that.

  • Peter

    Finally, the non-discrimination orthodoxy required by law in businesses is a structural advantage for universalist or indifferentist adherents. Hume made a “discriminatory” statement, and people now have subtle legal pressure to condemn that.

    Or maybe advocates of “Christians are victims of bias in the U.S.” just aren’t terribly persuasive when their arguments are analyzed through the lens of religious oppression throughout the world.

    Martin Marty is also featured on that site and he make this basic argument.

  • J.Cox

    To me what’s interesting is that Benedict mentioned the media as an off-hand aside. His main point was that “one increasingly encounters in political and cultural circles…scarce respect and at times hostility, if not scorn, directed towards religion…”

    That comment speaks more tellingly to the relationship between the politico/cultural elites and the media. Benedict seems to suggest that the elites set the expectations, and the media simply reflects them.

  • michael

    Well of course the media are biased against Christianity. My goodness, just read your Hobbes or Locke. The modern state and Western Liberal Democracy are the project–commenced within Christianity–of domesticating Christianity. (Ross Douhat’s little civics lesson treads gingerly around this point, but helps explain why a political framework that is ‘structurally biased’ coincides with a historically and now nominally Christian culture in America.) For this they were born and for this they came into the world. (Well, that and allowing the new bourgeoisie to make a little coin). So it stands to reason that the so-called fourth estate of liberal democracy, which moves entirely within its immanent horizons never calling them into question, would have as its perennial preoccupation the task of keeping Christianity particularly and religion more generally, which always threaten to burst those horizons, within what it perceives to be their proper bounds. That is part of journalism’s political function on behalf of the state which it serves as well as its sociological function in ‘mediating’ reality to the broader ‘secular’ culture (the ‘scare quotes’ are intentional), and it performs this task often enough even when it praises religion. Douhat’s editorial even performs this function in the name of advocating a place for religion in the public square, though I doubt he means to.

    The real interesting question, usefully obscured by the predictable tedium of the Hume affair and the tsk-tsking of Meachum, Quinn, and their comfortable cohort of commentators, is what this bias consists in, how it is structurally built into the craft of journalism and the ‘journalistic view of reality’, and how religion is allowed appear from within that view, not whether a few urbane pundits in the press cross the line in allowing their disdain for it to show.

    But that sort of self-questioning is not likely to arise from within the closed circle of journalistic navel gazing, apparently a mutually affirming and perpetual pasttime among journalists, because to pose it seriously is already to have embarked on something other than and outside of journalism.

  • Peter

    But that sort of self-questioning is not likely to arise from within the closed circle of journalistic navel gazing, apparently a mutually affirming and perpetual pasttime among journalists, because to pose it seriously is already to have embarked on something other than and outside of journalism.

    Could the same be said of religious conservative elites who, following the script created by political conservative elites, cry “bias” without much reflection? Any rejection of that elite notion is dismissed as “more bias,” instead of serious thought

  • J.Cox

    8.michael is of course, right. Here’s a transcript of NY Times executive editor Bill Keller recently giving the newsroom a pep talk….

    “Some of you seem NOT TO GET IT: the purpose of this rag is to keep Christianity particularly and religion more generally within their proper bounds! That shouldn’t be hard to understand. Don’t they teach Hobbes and Locke in J-Schools anymore? Repeat after me: ‘Religion sucks!’ ‘Keep Christianity inside the immanent horizons!’ This is our political function on behalf of the state and its what you get paid to do. Hey, YOU! Yeah, you! Keep your eyes on your navel!”

  • Ray Ingles

    Now, the Pope said that one “increasingly” encounters “scarce respect and at times hostility, if not scorn”. He didn’t even say that was the norm, or the majority, or anything like that. Just that such is on the rise.

    One can even agree with that and not agree that “there['s] widespread media bias against Christianity”. Dennett, for example, says that what’s happening is that Christianity (and religion in general) is receiving less unwarranted deference in the media… which seems to me consistent with what the Pope says, just described from a different point of view.

  • Ben

    *chuckle*. thanks, J.Cox.

  • michael

    J. Cox,

    Ouch. I think I get your point. We shouldn’t question the foundations or ubiquity of journalism, ask about its political or cultural function (as opposed to whatever the intentions of a Bill Keller might be) , or situate its emergence as a thought form within the history of thought or politics, much less bother to acquire some modicum of understanding of these things ourselves. In other words, we shouldn’t really think about it but just consume it, grateful that we can browse the New York Times while sipping our lattes or sit in our bathrobes taking in the echo chamber of journalists and pundits who grace the Sunday morning airwaves.

    Otherwise, though, I have to admit that your response was pretty funny. I laughed out loud as I read it. So kudos to you.

    And Peter, yes, I suppose the same thing could be said for those ‘conservative elites’, as you put it, who cry ‘bias’ at the drop of a hat, which is why I find the question of ‘bias’ pretty tiresome. (That, and the fact that such allegations usually seem like part of a political game.) The interesting questions to me are not the subjective prejudices of this or that reporter or even the general ethos of contemporary journalists, but the assumptions built into the logic of the craft itself and the way these shape their subject matter in advance. Journalism as such deserves a far more critical examination than it usually gets, especially considering the vast cultural power that it wields. Part of me is surprised to find such resistance to that, the other part not so much. There’s a lot at stake.

  • Stoo

    I know we’ve been here before, but, I’ve never quite worked out what how you might wish journalism to work differently? What is unsatisfactory about its view of reality?

  • Jay

    Hmmm… Is this really a panel representative of US religion? Or just the Inside-the-Beltway conception of American religion?

    What is the backstory on Welton Gaddy? Is he just some preacher who wanted to create a pale imitation of the NCC? (And why do “Interfaith Alliance” representatives make up 20% of the sample?)

    Overall, I found the introductions of the panelists to be lacking in context. What branch of Judaism are the rabbis, what type of Baptist is Gaddy?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Is this really a panel representative of US religion?

    Of course it is, Jay. Would you expect anything else from the company that gives us those down-home, mainstream publications Newsweek and The Washington Post?

  • S. Newark

    Really, the idea that the writers aren’t breaking “all three rules at once” is risible…theyperform that unholy work continually.

  • michael


    These are huge questions and hard to answer in this format not that I even have the answers fully worked out). I’ll take (a rather long) shot though.

    I suppose my first problem is that, as a kind of empiricism that harbors its own conception of truth, journalism as a matter of method always takes as normative, and therefore promotes, the assumptions of a secular political and social order that it is supposedly critiquing. This is what I meant above when I said that journalism serves the secular state, and there is nothing inconsistent about serving the state while performing a critical function with respect to this or that government or policy.

    There are (at least) three problems with this. The first, though this is either disguised or not well-understood, is that that secular order is not really secular. It is not metaphysically and theologically neutral but contains metaphysical or theological assumptions of its own that are perpetuated through journalism (and its other characteristic modes of thought)but concealed behind empiricism’s pretense to metaphysical and theological neutrality. The second is that these presuppositions determine in advance the now predictable ways that religion is allowed to appear to view: as moralism, private idiosyncracy, irrational intervention in a rational public order, therapeutic self-help, or unsettling political factor (Have I left any possibilities out?). Whether this presentation is favorable or unfavorable (i.e., ‘biased’) doesn’t matter so much as the form of the presentation itself. Never does it appear to view that religion might actually have something true to say about the the nature of reality itself, something which might unsettle the normativity of journalism’s own ‘transcendent’ viewpoint and assumtions; journalism’s basic empiricism rules that out in advance. In this sense, journalism is by definition un-serious about truth as anything other than empirical ‘fact’, essentially denying that truth could be anything else. Third, to the extent that the power of journalism is ubiquitous and the characteristic mode of modern discourse, it not only edits away alternative forms of rationality, religious, e.g., as having acces to truth–this is what I mean in saying that journalism polices the bounds of secular order–it is an agent in making us incapable of thinking about truth in other than empiricist terms and therefore unserious about truth as well. As a result, arguments like this one (and I’m not the only person to make them) are characteristically met with, “huh?”

    What to do about it? If by this you mean how could journalism be ‘fixed’, then the answer, I’m afraid, is not much. The cultural, political, and economic power of journalism is too vast, and the impetus toward banality, whether from ignorance or cynicism, is too great. Besides, the problem is not so much that of ‘good journalism’ vs. ‘bad journalism’–though I readily acknowledge such a distinction–but a problem of journalism as a thought form dominating modern culture.

    But in another sense I think simply understanding the truth about something is doing something. And given that journalism is not going away, and even that it performs good and necessary functions, I think journalism would ‘work differently’ if it had a greater sense of its own intrinsic limitations and insufficiency. (Who knows? This might lead to new templates or at least to a more interesting collection of ‘go-to guys’). Paul Vitello posted a week or so ago that journalism is basically a ‘discipline’, but it is a peculiarly modern conceit, and a highly questionable one, to think that a ‘discipline’ or ‘method’, devoid of substance or content, is adequate to the pursuit of truth. Joe C. ridicules me for bringing up Hobbes and Locke, suggesting that it would be absurd to require philosophy at j-school. I admit it’s a humorous thought. But if journalism is to acquire a critical sense of its own limitations, then it needs a better sense of its own animating assumptions and the historical movements to which it belongs, and it needs to think philosophically about its own foundations. In other words the antidote to the dominance of journalism is a good humanistic education (and I would bet that the best journalists are typically people who know something other than journalism). But this brings up one last problem: that that the demise of education in this sense is arguably the very condition of possibility for journalism becoming the characteristic mode of contemporary thought in the first place.

  • Stoo

    So what are those non-neutral secular assumptions? I have some idea but don’t wish to put words in your mouth.

    Also what does religion have to say about reality itself that isn’t better covered by either philosophy or science?

    The thing about those empirical facts (your quote mark rings alarm bells!) is, well, at least we can hope to verifyfalsify with a fair degree of reliablity, if not absoluteness.

  • michael


    I’m in a bit of a rush now. Maybe I can return to this later this afternoon (if I get my computer fixed!)

    I would only say that ‘religion’ in the traditional sense in which I’m conceiving it includes philosophy. You’ll hardly find a stronger advocate for the recovery of philosophy (and a more robust sense of reason) than the last two pontificates. So when I bemoan the inability of journalism to ‘get religion’, part of what I’m bemoaning is it’s philosophical naivete and the way that it has come to replace philosophical reflection.

    The science question is a bit trickier, not because of some ‘eternal opposition’ between religion and sciencce (which is ahistorical and false), but because there is a host of metaphysical issues nested in the question of their interrelation and in the nature of science itself, its scope, the sorts of questions it can answer, and whether this exhausts all meaningful questions.

    More anon, perhaps.

  • http://weneedus/ Ted Daniels

    It seems to me that when you’re in a Rodney Dangerfield state of mind there are more useful things to do than accuse the folks who don’t give you no respect.

    The first thing to do might be to wonder what it is about your behavior that seems to show people you don’t deserve respect.

    The second thing to do in my scenario would be to change the behavior that’s earning you contempt.

    You want respect?
    Try earning it.

    You can say anything
    In six words.